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Commons Chamber

Volume 654: debated on Monday 11 February 2019

House of Commons

Monday 11 February 2019

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Speaker’s Statement

Order. I have received a letter today from the operations manager of the central criminal court informing me that Fiona Onasanya, the hon. Member for Peterborough, has been sentenced to a period of imprisonment of three months. I have also received a letter from the registrar of criminal appeals informing me that Fiona Onasanya has submitted an appeal against her conviction, which is listed for hearing on 5 March. I shall cause the text of the letters to be published in the Votes and Proceedings and in the Official Report.

[The letters will appear at the end of today’s proceedings.]

On an altogether more upbeat note, I hope that the whole House will want to join me in offering the warmest possible congratulations to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) on the occasion of his birthday—87 years young today. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is with us in this Chamber for many years to come.

Oral Answers to Questions

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Universal Credit: Food Insecurity

May I join you, Mr Speaker, in wishing a happy birthday to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner)? I hope he finds it a cheery occasion, as the rest of us do.

We are committed to having a strong safety net where people need it. It is clear that there were challenges with the initial roll-out of universal credit, and the main issue that led to an increase in food bank usage could have been the fact that people had difficulty accessing their money early enough. We have made changes to accessing universal credit, so that people can have advances and so that there is a legacy run-on after two weeks of housing benefit, and we believe that that will help with food insecurity.

The Secretary of State may be aware of the cross-party children’s future food inquiry that I am co-chairing. Over the past year, I have heard from charities, families and, most importantly, young people themselves about their experiences with food insecurity. The matter is complex, but they tell me that universal credit is making their situation worse. Will the Secretary of State join me in April for the launch of the report, and will she tackle children’s food insecurity as a matter of urgency?

I can reassure the hon. Lady, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on school food, which I briefly co-chaired some while ago, that I am as committed as she is to addressing food insecurity, particularly for children. I believe and hope that the changes we have made in terms of access to early funds will have reduced food insecurity, but I will of course take an early interest in the report that she is producing. I look forward to seeing it.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that someone on benefits moving into work under the legacy welfare system that we inherited from the Labour Government could have lost up to £9 of every £10 they earned? There was no incentive to work whatsoever.

My hon. Friend draws attention to a real failing of the previous system. There was such a high rate of tax—sometimes up to £9 out of every £10—that there was no incentive for people to get into work. I thank him for reminding us that universal credit adjusts to such situations and ensures that work will always pay.

The Secretary of State is, no doubt, right that delays in payment were part of the problem, but does she recognise that the fact that people are not entitled to any money for the first five weeks makes a big contribution to the problems that we are seeing?

I have acknowledged that people having difficulty in accessing money on time was one of the causes of the growth in food bank usage, but we have tried to address that. One of the principal ways of doing so is to ensure that every applicant can receive advance payments on the day that they apply. In fact, I visited a jobcentre just before Christmas and was told about a number of claimants who came in for the first time on the Friday before Christmas and got those advance payments.

One recent change has actually made things worse. A bunch of my constituents, who were merely changing address with the same social landlord and who were covered by the alternative payment arrangements, suddenly found that they were 10 weeks in arrears on the housing benefit element when the bulk payments element was brought in, putting them in even worse debt. All the things that the Secretary of State is talking about today have made things worse in recent weeks, so I hope she will look at the matter.

Of course I will take a look at any particular cases that the hon. Gentleman brings to me. I have addressed the issue of direct payments of rent to landlords being made more frequently by saying that alternative payment arrangements should generally be more available. The fact is that universal credit is a more effective, more transparent system than what it replaces. One of the best ways to ensure that that is actually delivered on the ground is for MPs to engage with their jobcentres to make sure all that information is available.

We know from a series of academic and stakeholder reports that the rise in food insecurity can, at least in part, be put down not just to the implementation but to the value of social security benefits. The Secretary of State has acknowledged that, I think for the first time, this afternoon. We also know from Library figures that higher than expected inflation means that the benefits freeze will save an extra £1.2 billion in the coming year. Does the Secretary of State agree that those low-income families who are being driven into food poverty deserve a break and that the benefits freeze should stop this year?

May I just point out to the hon. Gentleman that, by 2020, payments made under universal credit are expected to reach £62 billion, compared with £60 billion under the previous system? [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the amounts, and I am merely pointing out to him that, with the changes in place, the amounts are larger under universal credit than they would have been under the previous system.[Official Report, 14 February 2019, Vol. 654, c. 10MC.]

Universal Credit Roll-out

We have now successfully rolled out universal credit full service across the country, with 1.6 million people now claiming universal credit. For the next phase, referred to as “managed migration,” we will test and refine our approach in a pilot, with up to 10,000 people moving from legacy benefits to universal credit. That pilot will start in July 2019.

It has now been a calendar month since the High Court found the DWP unlawful in its universal credit work assessment periods, yet hard-pressed families are still being penalised for receiving payments on a four-weekly basis. Will the Secretary of State give a commitment to make a statement to this House on how to rectify that appalling anomaly?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point but, as he is aware, the Department is considering the High Court judgment carefully—I have said this before in the House—and it therefore would not be appropriate to comment further at this stage.

Can the Minister confirm that, because of the Budget, there will be £4.5 billion available in additional measures over the next couple of years?

Yes, we set out in the last Budget that there will be £4.5 billion available, with a large amount of that obviously coming through the increase in work allowances.

As the Minister knows, universal credit has now been rolled out in Hull. A constituent, who has had an incredibly troubled life, came to see me on Friday. During his time he has suffered from addiction, he has been sleeping on the street and he has had convictions. The good news is that, not long ago, he walked through the doors of the Jubilee Church in Hull, and people there have been giving him support. He is now on an 18-month rehabilitation course. However, he has been told that, at the same time, he has to actively look for work. Surely the Minister would agree that while this young man is on a rehabilitation course—an opportunity for him to turn his life around—he should not also have to prove that he is actively searching for work.

Easements are, of course, available. I am happy to sit down and discuss the specifics of this case with the hon. Lady to see what may be possible.

On the evening of 14 January, the Government announced that, from this May, mixed-aged couples on a low income will no longer be able to claim pension credit when the older partner reaches state pension age and will have to claim universal credit instead. Couples affected could lose out by up to £7,000 a year, and the Conservative party manifesto pledged to safeguard pensioner benefits. Why have the Government broken that pledge?

If the hon. Lady would kindly listen, what I am saying is that the long-agreed change for mixed-age couples was voted on and agreed by Parliament in 2012. We should also be clear that mixed-age couples already claiming pension-age, income-related benefits at the point of change will not be affected, so long as they remain entitled.

Universal Credit: Fluctuating Income

4. What steps her Department is taking to ensure that the monthly assessment period for universal credit takes into account a claimant’s fluctuating income. (909110)

Monthly reporting allows universal credit to be adjusted on a monthly basis, which ensures that if a claimant’s income falls, they will not have to wait several months for a rise in their UC award.

My constituent who works for the NHS is paid a day outside her assessment period, meaning that she has to borrow money to pay the bills when she loses the benefits she is entitled to. Why, despite the High Court’s ruling, are this Government still making the lives of single working parents as difficult as possible?

As I have said, we will respond to the judicial review in due course. The hon. Gentleman will also be aware that, where the employer pays a claimant on a fixed date every month but that changes because of a weekend or a bank holiday, we tell the employer that they should still report the actual pay date to the real-time information system, so that the UC claim is unaffected. Guidance is available from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs on that.

I think the Minister has just referred to the situation that affects my constituent, who is paid on the last Friday of every month, so as the calendar date varies, there are occasions when there is a nil award for UC. Will he confirm that that issue is being looked at and considered?

Yes. As I have said, this is a matter where employers need to take action, and guidance is available from HMRC. As I understand it, employers were once again reminded before Christmas that they need to get the right payment date in place.

My constituents in this situation are still being harassed by the Department. Is the Minister going to make the change in line with the High Court judgment from 11 January or for all claims that fall into this category from the very beginning?

I completely understand why colleagues are asking these questions and why they want answers, but I have to repeat myself at this stage and say that the Department is considering the High Court’s judgment. I hope therefore that the hon. Lady will appreciate that it would not be appropriate for me to comment further.

Very good of the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) to join us. He will be pleased to know that he is just in time.

My constituent received an unexpected late payment for temporary work during his UC assessment period, which resulted in a nil award. Surely the time has come to ensure that the assessment period recognises when the money was earned and not when it was received.

We had a discussion about what happens where there is a fixed payment date, but I point out that where two awards had been made in one assessment period it would mean that the claimant would be entitled to a maximum UC award in the following assessment period.

Work Capability Assessments

5. If she will make it her policy that work capability assessments must be conducted by public sector employees. (909111)

I will allow the right hon. Gentleman to catch his breath, by saying that all people who carry out work capability assessments are fully qualified healthcare professionals, including nurses, paramedics, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and doctors. Most have two years’ post-registration experience, most have worked in the NHS and some combine working part-time in the NHS with being employed to undertake WCAs. As I said to the Select Committee during its recent inquiry on the WCA, future contracts will be open to all sectors.

I thank the Minister for her reply and for giving me time to recover my breath. As a constituency MP, I am sure that she, like me and many others, will know many constituents who feel that they have been ignored, bullied or interrogated during WCAs. Given that in the past the Ministry of Justice has had to spend some £100 million in arguing court cases and appeals, will she at least undertake to examine whether the public sector is not in fact better placed to carry out these assessments than private contractors, who have a very poor reputation?

Let me make it absolutely clear that I want to make sure that every person claiming a benefit from the Department for Work and Pensions has a really positive experience. We look at independent research on our claimant experience, and the vast majority of people are treated with respect and dignity, and the right decision is made the first time. However, one person’s poor experience is one too many, and we are constantly working with disabled people and stakeholders to improve our processes.

It is so important to discuss how we can help those who cannot work, but we should also recognise that 900,000 more disabled people are in work since 2014. Will the Minister outline what more she can do to get even more disabled people into work?

My right hon. Friend makes a really important point. We have a strong safety net for people who cannot work, but it is also wonderful that so many more people are able to work. I am delighted to announce that from 1 April we will uprate the Access to Work grant to just under £60,000 per person per year, which will provide tailor-made support to enable people to work.

PIP Reassessments: Lifelong Disabilities

6. What recent assessment her Department has made of the effect of personal independence payment reassessments on claimants with lifelong disabilities. (909112)

Our new guidance, which was introduced last August, now ensures that claimants with chronic conditions that are unlikely to change over time will receive an ongoing award, with only a light-touch review every 10 years. This is an important step in preventing those long-term claimants with the highest needs from having to undergo unnecessary reviews of their condition.

I appreciate the Secretary of State’s response, but will her Department review the cases of those who have already had decisions overturned? For example, I had a constituent with three brain tumours. She was awarded the highest rate of daily living and mobility allowance in 2016, but then reassessed in 2018 and not awarded anything. We had to appeal that decision, the appeal was of course successful, and she received a backdated payment of £5,000. I am sure the Secretary of State would agree that that was cruel and inhumane for someone at my constituent’s point of life. Is the Department going to look back at how many people slipped through the net over the past few years, before the Secretary of State made changes?

It is difficult to make policy based on individual cases discussed across the Chamber, but if the hon. Lady wants to show me that individual case, I will certainly look to see whether it should impact on the changes we have already made and will look at going forward.

Since 2013, nearly 8,000 disabled people have died within six months of being found ineligible for personal independence payments—yet more evidence that the assessment process is not fit for purpose. If the Secretary of State is not prepared to scrap this inhumane process, will she at least support the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), which would remove the arbitrary and cruel six-month time limit for people with a terminal illness?

The hon. Lady will be aware that under disability living allowance there were also assessments and difficulties with getting people paid on time, so let us not pretend that this is a wholly new change in terms of the consequences. I have started to look at the proposal from the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), to make sure that people with a terminal illness are treated correctly and get the support that they need as soon as possible.

The personal independence payment reassessment process is taking far too long for my constituents, with an average delay of more than 40 weeks. That causes a problem for people with significant health concerns. What action is my right hon. Friend taking to substantially reduce the waiting times in the Bolton and Wigan area?

I thank my hon. Friend for fighting so hard for his constituents and making sure that the most vulnerable in his constituency are well represented and looked after by their Member of Parliament. I believe he was referring to the tribunal reviews that take place when there are PIP appeals. We are working with Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service to make sure that we speed up the process to ensure that the waits are not so long.

It is all very well for the Secretary of State to say nice words about light-touch reassessment, but she will be aware of the case I raised last week in which a constituent whose condition worsened was assessed and lost her benefit as a result, and she will be aware of the case I have previously raised of the constituent whose leg was amputated and who was then assessed, on the basis of a phone call, as being able to walk four times further than he could the previous year on the basis of a work assessment. When are we going to see the reality of these assessments match up to the nice cuddly words we get from the Secretary of State, instead of their being used as a brutal and inhuman way to take people off benefit?

I would caution the hon. Gentleman about being so negative about an assessment that, yes, works for the vast majority of people. Only a certain number of the appeals get through and only 5% of the total number of assessments are overturned. I do not want people generally who are listening to and watching this exchange to think that the assessments are something to be fearful of. The people who conduct these assessments are sympathetic, thoughtful people who try to give the right answers. [Interruption.] Yes, they are. I urge the hon. Gentleman to let me know if he has a particular case or cases, because I or the relevant Minister will always talk to him and make sure that the outcome is settled.

People with Learning Disabilities and Autism: Celebrating Achievements

7. What steps she is taking to celebrate the achievements of people with learning disabilities and autism in employment and outside of employment. (909113)

It is really important to recognise and celebrate the achievements and contributions, in all aspects of life, of people with learning disabilities and autism. Disability Confident highlights achievements of disabled people, including those with learning disabilities. Most recently, the high-profile November and December campaign reached more than 16 million people on Twitter alone. We are investing in new support and employment opportunities too, and we also work with charities such as Autism Exchange and the Speaking Out Forum.

My constituent, Sam Prowse, has been chosen as a winner on the inaugural Learning Disability and Autism Leaders’ List announced recently. He was chosen for his work with Hertfordshire County Council as an adviser supporting the library service on autism and on making information easy to read. Does the Minister agree that this list is a good way of celebrating the achievements of people such as Sam who give a great deal to the local community?

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for raising this matter. I very much support the inaugural Learning Disability and Autism Leaders’ List. I thank Sam for his contribution to his community and congratulate him on his achievement. There are so many unsung heroes in all our communities and it is always a pleasure to have an opportunity such as this. The Prime Minister’s award, Points of Light, provides another excellent way of highlighting the contribution of disabled people to our society.

I must congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on his magnificent tie. I had thought that perhaps it depicted fireworks, but I am advised by a scholarly source that it would be more accurate to say that it depicts tropical foliage.

For the information of the House, I am wearing a Beatles “Magical Mystery Tour” vintage tie. I feel that, at the present moment in this country, I am on a magical mystery tour.

May I use this question to beg the Front-Bench team not to be condescending and patronising about people with different abilities? So many of the people on the autism spectrum with whom I work are extremely talented. They are unusual; they think differently. Many companies today are looking for people with that sort of quirky talent in the tech industries and much else. Let us not condescend; let us put more money, influence and resources into finding that talent and supporting it.

I absolutely share the hon. Gentleman’s passion and enthusiasm for speaking up and out for people with autism, who do have many special skills and talents. It is a pleasure to work with so many people on the autistic spectrum—people who are neuro-diverse—and to hear of their experiences in setting up businesses and in making real contributions to their places of work. I absolutely join him in speaking up for the huge benefit they bring to all of us in society.

Recently in my constituency, I held a Disability Confident event where I signed up many new employers in Angus and heard success stories of constituents of mine who have benefited from the scheme. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should be encouraging Members across this House to have a similar event so that we can see the successes of the Disability Confident campaign?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on taking that initiative. She is an absolute champion of enabling people to reach their full potential in society through work. I pay tribute to the many hon. Members across the political divide who have joined Disability Confident and who are getting out and having events in their constituency. We should all be proud that, for the first time in our country, there are more disabled people in work than out of work, so the nation can draw on that rich talent pool.

I support the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman). Is it not true that, because of their recruitment processes, many employers are missing out on the talent and the enrichment that employing someone with autism would bring? People do not even get that first opportunity. What more can the Minister do to support employers to think again about the way they go about recruiting people and to give the opportunity to a wider range of people to get that first chance?

The hon. Lady makes a really important point. We do not want employers to miss out on this fantastic talent pool of people. Through Disability Confident, we are able to provide free and extremely valuable resources to employers to show them how they can make reasonable adjustments regarding the recruitment, retention and management of people on the spectrum in the workplace. That is really important. I am sure that her question will raise awareness of the free, fantastic resources that are available to all employers through Disability Confident.

Universal Credit: Social Security Advisory Committee

8. What recent progress her Department has made on implementing the recommendation of the Social Security Advisory Committee on alternatives to claiming universal credit online. (909114)

Universal credit is primarily a digital service, but it can also be accessed via telephone and in a jobcentre, where in-person support is available. We also provide assisted digital support as part of our current universal support offer.

The Secretary of State told Sky News that she will ensure that no deflection script strategy is used by the universal credit helpline in the future. Is she therefore admitting that a deflection script has been in use, and that there has been a culture of rushing people off the phone and diverting them online? If so, will she now apologise for the Department having denied this tactic?

The hon. Lady has already been sent a copy of the universal credit digital channel document, which Department for Work and Pensions staff use as a guide when taking calls from claimants. She will be aware that this document says clearly that staff must use a common-sense and sensitive approach in resolving queries ahead of any digital discussion. Let me be absolutely clear that there is no intention to deflect and there are no targets for getting claimants to use a digital channel.

On 15 January, the First Minister of Wales agreed with Plaid Cymru and Labour MPs that the devolution of certain aspects of welfare benefits should be explored. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how universal credit can be better tailored to the needs of the people of Wales, particularly with regards to claiming online and the needs of Welsh speakers?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have now put in place mechanisms so that Welsh speakers do benefit. I am happy to meet him and any other colleagues to discuss any issues that they may wish to raise.

Employment Level

9. What assessment the Government has made of trends in the level of employment since June 2010. (909115)

I am pleased to say that, because of the changes made by this Government, we have record levels of employment—up 3.4 million since 2010—and the female unemployment rate is currently at a record low.

Recent figures show that unemployment in my constituency continues to fall. What plans does the Secretary of State have to reduce it further by working with businesses and further education colleges to ensure that young people have the skills needed for today’s workplace?

I thank my hon. Friend for the good work that he does in his constituency to ensure that unemployment continues to fall. We are committed to providing targeted support to young people, so that everyone—no matter what their start in life—is given the very best chance of getting into work. The Jobcentre Plus support for schools programme helps to improve the employability of young people and has resulted in thousands of children being better equipped for today’s labour market.

Unemployment in my constituency has actually risen by 30% over the past 12 months. Given today’s economic figures, which show very low economic growth over the last seven years, and given the impending doom of no deal, what contingency plans is the Secretary of State making so that unemployment does not rise still further?

I urge the right hon. Gentleman not to be so despondent about the growth figures today. We are seeing growth. Overall employment continues to rise. If he would like to speak to one of us regarding any scheme he has to boost employment in his constituency, I would be pleased to see him.

The hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) asked about employment trends, but one trend that he did not mention is that zero-hours contracts have quadrupled since 2010. This week is HeartUnions Week, so will the Secretary of State join me, the TUC and the Labour party in pledging to ban these disgraceful contracts?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman may have his facts wrong. Zero-hours contracts are down; 780,000 people are currently on zero-hours contracts, down from 883,000 in the same period in 2017. Overall, we estimate that 2.4% of the employment market are on zero-hours contracts.

Universal Credit: Debt Repayments

10. What assessment she has made of trends in the level of debt repayments by people in receipt of universal credit. (909116)

The Government have recently reviewed the maximum rate of deductions, which will be reduced from 40% to 30% from October 2019. We are also taking action through the introduction of a Breathing Space scheme and the setting up of the Single Financial Guidance Body, which will consider the needs of people in vulnerable circumstances.

The Minister will be aware that I recently met the Minister for Employment regarding my constituent Georgina Woods, whose historical repayments soared from £11.12 a month to £79.46 a month when she moved from tax credits to universal credit—a situation that she cannot get resolved because she tried to save the Government money by not applying for tax credits. It is really difficult to resolve this case due to a lack of communication between the Treasury and the DWP, and that issue will only get worse as universal credit rolls out and it is more difficult for constituents to get this resolved. Why is the Minister’s Department treating people more harshly than the Treasury is?

I know that the hon. Lady has met my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment on the issue of her constituent and that the Department awaits more details to investigate it in more detail. The wider point is that the Minister for Employment is looking into this issue with Her Majesty’s Treasury and will, I am sure, update her.

I welcome the reduction in the maximum deduction rate, but what analysis has the Minister done of what that may mean for the poorest households and how will he communicate the impact of the change?

We believe that it is a positive step in the light of the review that took place. I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the Breathing Space scheme that is being introduced by Her Majesty’s Treasury to assist people on an ongoing basis. That scheme came in in the legislation that we introduced last year.

Why does the Minister not stop universal credit until such time as the Government get the result of the pilot scheme? Anywhere else, if people have a pilot scheme, they wait to implement it and learn the results from it before rolling the system out. You would do that in the private sector. Why not do it here?

With respect, the answer is twofold. First, there has been a gradual introduction of universal credit and, secondly, the pilot scheme is in respect of managed migration.

Care Leavers: Employment Opportunities

Building on recent announcements, I have just held two roundtables with care leavers and care leaver charities. The next step is to meet employers to explore how we can further improve job opportunities for care leavers.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Prior to universal credit, under the legacy system, care leavers and other vulnerable jobseekers were just left to sign on but now, with tailored support and work coaches, that has changed. Now that youth unemployment is at record low levels, what is the Minister’s Department doing to make sure that work coaches are helping care leavers to find not just a job but the right job for them?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has championed this area for a number of years, particularly during his time under the former Mayor of London as his youth ambassador. We recognise that the key is to build a personalised and positive relationship between the work coach and the care leaver. We have been working very closely with the Children’s Society and Barnardo’s to improve both the guidance and the training for all our frontline work coaches.

Care leavers are one of the groups at highest risk of homelessness. What support does the Department offer to help care leavers and vulnerable claimants to secure housing?

Last Thursday, my hon. Friend held a powerful debate in Westminster Hall covering some of this area. The Government take the issue very seriously. We are providing additional funding for 47 local authorities that have the highest numbers of care leavers at risk of rough sleeping. That funding will allow them to appoint specialist personnel advisers to provide additional support to small caseloads of those at risk. I am also keen to look at opportunities to open up the jobcentres to care leavers six months before their 18th birthday in order to look at all the different opportunities and support available to them.

Given that care leavers are, by definition, vulnerable and have a host of challenges, including in housing, getting into work, and skills and training, what discussions is the DWP having with local authorities so that rather than drip-dripping a few special projects the Government actually address the chronic underfunding of local government that has let care leavers down, among many others?

Our whole strategy of supporting care leavers, which was set out as part of the care leaver covenant, is about closer partnership working with not only the Department for Education but local authorities, to ensure that there is consistent support across the board. As I said in my previous answer, I want to start that earlier, giving young care leavers the maximum time to prepare for the transition as they reach 18.

The Government deserve some credit for the care leaver covenant. What specific joint work is being undertaken with the Children and Families Minister the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), to ensure that every young person leaving local authority care leaves with a specific offer of a job, apprenticeship or further training? Have the Government considered making that a legal obligation?

I thank the hon. Gentleman; I know that he has raised similar issues before. It is right for this work to be joined up and consistent. At the moment, in the DWP, we look at this 28 days before care leavers are due to start UC. As I said, I think that that should be brought forward to six months, with advice and training on the different opportunities that are available. It is vital that all groups work in partnership. They have supported all the roundtables that I have held and I will continue to work closely with them.

In-work Poverty

There is clear evidence that work offers people the best opportunity to get out of poverty. A working-age adult living in a household where every adult is working is about six times less likely to be in relative poverty than one living in a household where nobody works.

Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that the real-terms cut in social security is the single biggest driver of in-work poverty, leaving those struggling to make ends meet on poverty pay losing hundreds of pounds a year. If the Secretary of State is looking forward to the benefits cut not being extended, as she told Sky News, why do the Government not end it now, rather than wait to review it in 2020?

This Government are not only delivering record employment in all regions of the UK—it is accepted that work is the best route out of poverty—but targeting support at the most vulnerable in society, with increases in the national living wage, which will see the fastest pay rise in the last 20 years, changes to the income tax threshold and a doubling of free childcare.[Official Report, 14 February 2019, Vol. 654, c. 9MC.]

Crash-era debt was owed to commercial lenders and stemmed from lifestyle desires, but Turn2us reports that the bulk of its 9,000 users in Ealing are in-work adults who are struggling to meet the bare basics—their debts are to council housing departments, energy providers and water companies. If the Government will not unfreeze the benefits cap now and end the scandal of zero-hours contracts, what are they doing about that worrying trend, noted by the London School of Economics, the National Audit Office and Citizens Advice?

As we know, there are 1 million fewer people and 300,000 fewer children in absolute poverty. The hon. Lady raised that theme at the last DWP oral questions, when she set out the distressing case of a claimant who she claimed was left with just £10 over Christmas because her payment was due on Christmas day. We looked into that case and I took a personal interest in it. The claimant actually received their full entitlement before Christmas, as well as interim support for childcare because they had been able to secure work. I know that the hon. Lady would want everybody in the House to be aware of that.

That is a testament to the effectiveness of repetition. As I have often had cause to observe—I say this as much for the benefit of those observing our proceedings as for Members—repetition is not a novel phenomenon in the House of Commons.

That more are in work is welcome. That one in eight are the working poor, with working parents struggling to clothe and feed their children, is shameful. Does the Secretary of State recognise that working poverty consigns millions to a hand-to-mouth existence and, because people fall beneath the threshold for auto-enrolment, working poverty is all too often followed by a retirement in poverty? That cannot be right.

Auto-enrolment is a success, with 10 million new savers, and we intend to lower the starting age from 22 to 18 and remove the lower earnings limit.

Social Security Benefits: Disabled People

14. What steps she is taking to ensure that disabled people can access the social security benefits to which they are entitled. (909120)

Universal credit has been designed with accessibility in mind, and we are committed to providing a tailored service that recognises those with complex needs. We are improving accessibility features and we are adding to the system all the time, allowing people to claim online, by telephone or through home visits. We really want to work with many community partners or those who are supporting people with complex needs to make sure they do get that support.

A year ago I wrote, with 100 MPs from across the House, to the then Secretary of State to highlight what was really faced by so many disabled people, which is a hostile environment in trying to access payments. It now transpires that seven reviews are being undertaken by the DWP into the serious administrative mistakes that have been made, including why 4,600 disabled people have wrongly had their personal independence payments stopped. Will the Minister update us about what progress has been made on those seven reviews and, indeed, about what learnings are going to be taken forward?

We work very hard in the DWP to make sure that decisions are made accurately the first time. However, where there have been mistakes, we work really quickly to remedy them as soon as possible. The hon. Gentleman is quite right that we are going through some wide-scale administrative exercises on both employment and support allowance and PIP, and I regularly provide written ministerial statements to the House—the most recent ones were in December—setting out exactly what we are doing.

23. What steps is the Department taking to improve the general assessment process and the oversight of individual assessors to reduce the rate of cases going to appeal? (909130)

It is absolutely right that we should be focused on making the right decision first time. We have had independent reviews of both the work capability assessment and the PIP assessments, and we are working rigorously to implement each of the steps that have been identified.

Under schedule 2 to the Universal Credit (Managed Migration) Regulations 2018, the compensation for severely disabled people who have moved on to universal credit for the loss of premiums is a flat rate of £80 per month if they have been placed in the limited capability for work group. This is considerably less than the actual loss of income, which is approximately £180 per month. Will the Minister give a full breakdown of how that figure was reached, and will she listen to Labour’s demands and commit to ensuring that the compensation reflects the real loss of those premiums?

I fear that you, Mr Speaker, will not allow me the time I need to answer such a detailed question, so I am very happy to write to the hon. Lady. I do want to say, because I think the whole House will be pleased, that we have now enabled people who have single-tier pensions to be held back on the legacy benefits until the managed migration regulations come into effect.

Under universal credit, for working disabled people to qualify for in-work support, such as the work allowance, one must be found unfit for work under the work capability assessment. This is unlike the legacy social security system, under which a disabled person will qualify for in-work support, such as the disability element of working tax credit, by being in receipt of disability living allowance or PIP. Does the Minister agree with me that it is absurd that a disabled worker must be found unfit for work to qualify for in-work support, and will she commit today to reviewing this?

Universal credit provides tailor-made support for all people, including those with disabilities. Once somebody meets their work coach, they will have a personalised journey to support them into work and to make progress into work, and that can happen even before the work capability assessment is taken.

Breathing Space Scheme

15. What plans the Government have to include debts owed to her Department in its new Breathing Space scheme. (909122)

I helped to introduce Breathing Space as part of the Financial Guidance and Claims Act 2018. The Department for Work and Pensions is fully supportive of the Breathing Space policy. We also recognise the importance of ensuring that people can access advice in identifying solutions to their debt problems, and we have set up the Single Financial Guidance Body.

That is very good to hear, but both the Treasury Committee and the Work and Pensions Committee have said that Departments take a disproportionate and often aggressive approach to the recovery of debt. A single person over 25 claiming universal credit could have £127 deducted from their benefits each month to pay existing debts. If the Government are determined, as the Minister says, to help people manage their debts, why is his own Department making deductions that push claimants further into poverty?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, in relation to Breathing Space, the Government are considering the responses to our recent consultation and will respond in due course, and that the standard deduction rate for the repayment of a non-fraud overpayment of universal credit is 15%.

Location of Jobcentres

The DWP has a network of over 630 jobcentres across the UK. We consider a number of factors when making decisions about the future DWP estate, including the potential demand for services, the accessibility of our buildings and value for money.

I have a vulnerable constituent who lives in Stansted Mountfitchet but has to travel an hour and a half by public transport to Braintree in order to access a jobcentre. Will the Minister please review jobcentre provision in my constituency, specifically in Uttlesford district?

I thank my hon. Friend for the work she does on behalf of her constituents. I can confirm that we will continue to work with community-based partner organisations, including Saffron Walden Town Council, to ensure support and the delivery of outreach. Also, for vulnerable claimants and those in remote areas, alternative attendance arrangements can be introduced.

Just before I call the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), I can tell her that this morning I conducted my usual weekly Skype session with school students, and today it was with students at the outstanding Elm Wood Primary School in her constituency. I engaged with those quite superb, articulate and personable students, and with their class teacher, Stephanie Kamara, and the headteacher, Ms Myrtle Charles, who made a guest appearance. What a credit those students are to their teachers and parents.

Social Security Benefits: Windrush Generation

17. What discussions she has had with the Home Secretary on supporting people of the Windrush generation to access social security benefits. (909124)

I take a particular interest in ensuring that the Department for Work and Pensions liaises closely with the Home Office to make sure that the Windrush generation are properly supported. So far we have helped over 400 customers to swiftly confirm their status and access benefits.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am always proud of the students at Elm Wood Primary School, which is indeed an excellent school with brilliant students.

I have been writing to the Secretary of State for many months on behalf of my constituent, who was the first Windrush citizen to return to the UK in May last year. She has since been denied access to attendance allowance because she was not in the country during the assessment period. The only reason she was not in the country at the time was the illegal action of the British Government. I have been told by the DWP that she must wait until the Windrush compensation scheme is published and include within her claim compensation for benefits she is due now. That is absurd and unacceptable. Why is the Secretary of State, who presided over the Windrush scandal as Home Secretary, continuing to compound and extend the injustice that Windrush citizens are suffering by failing to put in place the support they need to access all the benefits to which they are entitled?

I would like to reassure the hon. Lady that I have looked into this case, and I do take seriously, as she and the House would expect, the issue of ensuring that the Windrush generation are supported correctly by the DWP. We have reinstated the claimant’s pension credit and have awarded arrears to date. With regard to the attendance allowance, I will be writing to the hon. Lady, and officials are working to resolve the matter. I will provide the letter as a matter of urgency.

Topical Questions

Today I am delighted to confirm that 10 million workers have now been automatically enrolled into a workplace pension. Since 2012 this policy has been transforming savings culture. The increase in pension uptake has been particularly marked in younger workers, women and those on low earnings. For many, a private workplace pension was once a pipe dream. Thanks to the action we have taken, it is now a reality. Today I am also bringing forward plans to strengthen the Pensions Regulator to protect final salary pensions, including a new prison sentence of up to seven years in certain circumstances. These measures show that the Government are on the side of workers saving for retirement and that we will protect their incomes from the reckless behaviour of a small number of unscrupulous bosses.

I have many female constituents who are self-employed or on zero-hours contracts. They do not have a set regular monthly wage, yet the DWP insists on a four-week assessment period to assess their earnings and determine their benefits. Those women are being forced into hardship by sudden cuts to their benefit payment and a lengthy appeals process, which can take up to three to four months. Why can the DWP not recognise the situation that those on fluctuating incomes are put in and revise its guidelines accordingly?

I hope the women the hon. Lady refers to are engaging with their work coaches, who try to provide a tailored service to enable individuals to realise how much better supported they are under this system. I would also point out that female employment is at a record high—jobs and support are out there. With the help of work coaches, we want to ensure that the women she refers to do not just get the average jobs they may start on, but have a real opportunity to develop careers.

T6. I join the Secretary of State in welcoming the fantastic news that 10 million people are involved in auto-enrolment. Could she tell us a little bit more about the measures the Government will be taking to enable them to increase their savings once they are in auto-enrolment? (909136)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his support. In his constituency, 21,000 people and 4,290 employers are now auto-enrolled. It is working well in his constituency. In April, we will increase the amount of contribution from employers.

Social security sanctions can be detrimental to the health and wellbeing of claimants, and, in extreme cases, push people into destitution. The Government’s response to the Work and Pensions Committee report was shocking. Apparently, they are only prepared to consider increasing the length of sanctions, not reducing them. What has happened to the concept of compassion? Will the Secretary of State end the Government’s cruel and counterproductive sanctions regime?

I do not recognise the hon. Lady’s description. I have been around jobcentres. I always make a point of speaking to work coaches, asking them about the way they impose sanctions and when. They always say to me that it is a last resort only done after a series of engagements. This is a personal choice that work coaches make. They have a lot of discretion and in my experience they are using it correctly.

T8. How will the Government ensure that the roll-out of universal credit continues to support the benefits of being in work, while providing the required flexibility for people who are often moving through life-changing circumstances as we support them back into the workplace? (909138)

I am happy to say that that is exactly the aim of universal credit: to ensure that it helps people while they are in work, gives them the additional funds they may need, and ensures that the taper rate, the amount of tax they pay as they move into more employment or a higher level of pay, does not adversely affect their ambitions and their ability to earn more.

The Government are about to enact an element of policy passed seven years, two Parliaments and two Governments ago without a debate or a vote. Mixed-age pensioner couples are set to lose £7,000 from their household income if the changes to pension credit go ahead. Surely, with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation saying that 300,000 more pensioners are in poverty now compared to 2012, the Secretary of State must seek a new mandate from this House for these cuts and have a debate and a vote?

The reality is that the absolute poverty rate for pensioners has fallen to a record low, with over 200,000 fewer pensioners in absolute poverty before housing costs. The state pension has also increased by over £1,000 in cash terms since 2010 by reason of the triple lock, as well as many other reasons.

T9. Will the Minister explain how today’s announcement will deter reckless bosses from mismanaging pensions? (909139)

My hon. Friend’s constituents in Southport will be reassured that the Government are cracking down on the mismanagement of existing defined benefit pensions, so that his constituents can ensure they get the pensions they deserve and have saved for.

T2. European Union citizens who have worked in this country primarily through agencies are at risk of failing the habitual residence test although they have lived here for many years, because their employment might not have been continuous. Will the Minister meet me to outline what protections are available for those EU citizens? (909132)

Yes, of course I will meet the hon. Lady. As she knows, there are set criteria in place before people are able to claim benefits or universal credit, but I am of course very happy to meet her.

T10. Last week, I was interviewed on Bolton FM—[Interruption.] Last week, I was interviewed on Bolton FM by a group of young carers who make an immense contribution, but who are concerned about the level of support they receive. Will my right hon. Friend outline what support is available? (909140)

I am sure that it was a fantastic interview, which we will all be looking to hear in the archives online. As set out in the earlier questions, we are doing a huge amount to support care leavers. I am very grateful for the support of charities such as the Children’s Society and Barnardo’s, who are helping to shape that. Only last week, I met a group of care leavers from the Big House charity in London, who were able to give me their personal wish list of things that we can do. We will continue to work with care leavers, charities and support organisations so that they can have the maximum opportunities, which many take for granted.

It is always pleasing to see a happy Member. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) is convulsed with mirth. She is in a state of almost uncontrollable hysteria. Well, I hope she is very happy. I do not know what it is that has amused her, but it is good to know that she is a happy spirit in the Chamber.

T3. Oxford & District Action on Child Poverty recently met me to discuss the devastating impact of the two-child limit on working families in Oxford. It said, “You literally could not have designed a better policy to increase child poverty than this one,” with estimates suggesting that over a quarter of a million children will be pushed into poverty as a result. Will the Minister listen and not just tweak, but scrap this punitive policy in its entirety? (909133)

This was a policy that was introduced and voted on in the House in 2012. It is right that some people who are paid very low wages and are paying taxes should not have to pay for other people to make different life choices that they feel they cannot afford. The hon. Lady is probably aware—I hope she is—that we changed the retrospective nature of that policy to ensure that families who were already in existence before 2012 were not adversely affected by it. I think that is the right balance.

The House will know that the Government are doing more than ever to support people with disabilities in the workplace. Will the Minister tell us what is currently being done to safeguard the dignity of long-term sufferers on employment and support allowance and universal credit?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Safeguarding the dignity and wellbeing of people with the most severe lifelong conditions is of paramount importance. A number of Members have raised cases with me where people were receiving the highest levels of support, including in personal independence payment, and they were then reassessed as not needing any support. I was very concerned to hear about that, so I am now ensuring that DWP decision makers review all such cases to make sure that we get the right support to the right people at the right time.

T4. The three-year benefit freeze, on top of three years of capped increases, has caused financial hardship for too many and for too long. Surely enough is enough, and the benefit freeze must be brought to an end in the forthcoming financial year. (909134)

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s approach to this, but I must remind him of the terrible financial inheritance that we took on, which required belt-tightening, from which we are now getting some of the benefit. I also point out to him that now wages are rising faster than inflation, this is a significant change for people in receipt of it.

A constituent of mine, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, works part time in a catering assistant role, which she began as a volunteer. However, last April, she was informed that the entire year of ESA would be reclaimed due to a mistake in the reporting of her hours and salary. Does my right hon. Friend agree that claimants can often be vulnerable to errors, and would she agree to meet me to discuss this very difficult case?

Of course, I will meet my hon. Friend to ensure that the right decisions have been made, but I would point out that she has drawn attention to one of the benefits of universal credit: a monthly assessment allows a much more accurate payment to be made to individual applicants.

T5. The Minister referred earlier to record levels of employment, but is it not a fact that this is only because the Tories are running a slave economy, with 4 million people on bogus self-employment, zero-hours contracts and agency work, waiting to know whether they are going to be working from one day to the next? (909135)

As I was able to say earlier, only under 2.5% are on zero-hours contracts. The facts do not support the hon. Gentleman’s approach. He can have his own views; he cannot have his own facts.

Additional cold weather payments are paid over the winter months when average ambient temperatures fall below zero degrees for a period of seven days. It is a welcome measure, particularly in Scotland, but may I ask my hon. Friend, on behalf of my constituents around the Banff and Buchan coast, if wind chill factor could be taken into consideration in any future review?

My hon. Friend has been campaigning hard on this issue, which is important to his constituents, and, following the fantastic private Member’s Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams), we have committed to carrying out a full review, working with the Met Office, so that we can get more detailed assessments of where cold weather payments are needed, using technology such as satellites, technology on ships, buoys, and so on.

T7. Will the Government commit to footing the bill for free TV licences for over-75s if the BBC decides it cannot afford to continue funding them? (909137)

I certainly hope that that does not come forward, but I think this is the responsibility of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, so I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to put that question to its Secretary of State.

Some people are paid four-weekly, not monthly, so one month of the year, they will get two payments. Will the Minister ensure that universal credit can cope adequately with this situation?

As my hon. Friend knows, we discussed this in an earlier question. Of course, the key thing is to get support to people, and where they have two payments in one assessment period and none in the following period, they should expect to receive their full universal credit payment.

Does the Secretary of State think that, if the regulator had the power to commit to prison for seven years individuals who wilfully or recklessly mishandle a pension scheme, Sir Philip Green would now be in prison?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the extraordinary work he did that has led in part to our announcement that there will now be prison sentences for people who commit the sort of criminal activity we have seen. I cannot be drawn on that individual case, unfortunately, but I believe we will see a different regime going forward.

We have now had 10 consecutive months of real growth in wages. Can the Secretary of State confirm that this is the strongest real-terms wage growth in this country for 10 years?

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing attention to that fact. It is good news for people who are earning and people living on lower incomes, and I certainly hope that it continues.

Many people across the House will have been shocked by the pictures of my constituent Stephen Smith, who has a progressive lung disease and was hospitalised at 6 stone. He had repeated failed appeals and tribunals, and the Liverpool CASA, his advocate, said:

“We were unable to solicit any reply from the DWP”.

He was readmitted to hospital because he was so unwell, and it was only after I intervened that the DWP overturned its decision, but it should never have got to that. What will the Secretary of State do to ensure that no one in our country faces such an injustice in seeking the support they are entitled to and deserve?

I share the hon. Lady’s indignation. We have apologised to Mr Smith and his ESA payment has been repaid and reinstated in full. I will take a personal interest in ensuring that, where errors were made, they are corrected.

Under our benefits system, serious or terminally ill students have to abandon their courses to claim benefits. It is wrong for us to be telling students to give up on the hope of getting better and to abandon their courses just to claim benefits. We have to put this right.

I thank my hon. Friend for his campaign. I share his view that we need to take action. We are developing policy and I will make sure that he is the first to know what action we do take.

Turning back to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray), does the Secretary of State not share the outrage of many people that her Department is pushing through cuts to pension credit with no legislative procedure? Will the Government bring the statutory instrument to the House for debate so that Parliament can discuss this enormous cut to low-income pensioners and the double whammy to many women born in the 1950s?

This year, we continue to spend more than £120 billion on benefits for pensioners, including £97 billion on the state pension, which goes up. Mixed-aged couples already claiming pension credit or housing benefit for pensioners will continue to receive those benefits and will not be affected while they remain entitled to either.

On 2 November, my constituent won his ESA appeal—the DWP did not even bother to attend—but three months on, it is still arguing about whether he should get the full back pay. At what point did the Department become above the law?

Something has clearly gone amiss, and I should be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and see what we can do to sort it out as soon as possible.

I recently met a group of people who, despite having severe and unstable epilepsy, had been denied benefits. The questions asked by the assessors appeared to be completely irrelevant to their condition. For instance, one assessor’s report referred to a person’s complexion. How does the Department intend to ensure that assessors are appropriately trained to deal with different conditions?

I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady to go through the report. I assure the House that healthcare professionals are thoroughly trained and often work with leading national charities that represent people, including those with epilepsy, but of course there is always more we can do, and I should be delighted to meet the hon. Lady to discuss that.

I am told that many PIP claimants in Coventry with severe mental illnesses are being forced to attend medical assessments miles away in Birmingham. The assessors are rarely mental health professionals, and many of them fail to understand the complexities and fluctuating nature of the claimants’ conditions. Will the Minister commit herself to ensuring that Coventry claimants are assessed in Coventry and that all assessors are appropriately qualified?

Let me reassure the hon. Lady. People with severe conditions, including severe mental health conditions, can have home assessments; and many more people are benefiting from PIP than benefited from the legacy benefit, disability living allowance.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues, but demand exceeds supply, and we must now move on.

Seaborne Freight

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the cancellation of a contract with Seaborne Freight as part of the Government’s contingency planning for a no-deal Brexit.

In December, following a collective Government decision and a procurement process involving my Department and the Treasury, we contracted with three shipping companies to provide additional ferry capacity as part of contingency planning for a potential no-deal EU exit.

Let me make it absolutely clear that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, the Government’s priority will be to ensure the smooth operation of both the port of Dover and the channel tunnel, and we are introducing measures at the UK end to contribute to that. However, any sensible Government plan for all eventualities. That is why we agreed contracts worth around £100 million, with the bulk of the award—£89 million—going to DFDS and Brittany Ferries to provide services across seven separate routes. Built into those agreements are options to add capacity on two other routes from those companies, should they be required. That capacity could be needed to guarantee the smooth flow of some key goods into the UK, particularly for the NHS. It is worth my reminding the House that, in the event of no deal and constriction on the short strait, the capacity would be sold on to hauliers carrying priority goods.

In addition to the £89 million-worth of contracts with DFDS and Brittany Ferries, the Department entered into a £13.8 million contract with Seaborne Freight to provide ferry services from the port of Ramsgate to Ostend. At the time of the award, we were fully aware of Seaborne’s status as a start-up business and the need for it to secure vessels and port user agreements to deliver a service. However, the shorter distance between the two ports meant that the route could provide us with shorter journey times and lower cost, making it a potentially attractive part of the package.

Seaborne’s proposition to the Department was backed by Arklow Shipping, Ireland’s biggest and one of Europe’s largest shipping companies. For commercial reasons, I have not been able to name Arklow Shipping or mention its involvement to date, but its support for the proposition from the outset and the assurances received by the Department provided confidence in the viability of the deal. Arklow confirmed to me that it intended to finance the purchase of ships and would be a major shareholder in Seaborne. It also confirmed to me its view that the Seaborne plans were “both viable and deliverable”. Those assurances included clear evidence about the availability of suitable vessels from the continent and about the formal steps that Seaborne, via Arklow, had taken to secure the vessels. However, releasing that information into the public domain could have driven up the cost of the vessels significantly and might even have resulted in their being removed from the market, where supply is extremely scarce. I have therefore had to refrain from saying anything publicly about this to date.

My Department monitored closely Seaborne’s progress towards meeting its contractual commitments. By last week, the company had secured firm options on ships to operate on the route, had reached provisional agreement with Ostend and was close to doing so with Ramsgate. However, late last week, despite previous assurances, Arklow Shipping suddenly and unexpectedly withdrew its backing from Seaborne. In the light of this, and after very careful assessment, I took the decision to terminate this contract. My Department concluded that there were now too many major commercial issues to be resolved to enable Seaborne to establish alternative arrangements and finance in the time needed to bring ferries and ports into operation.

As I have repeatedly made clear, not a penny of taxpayers’ money has gone, or will go, to Seaborne. The contracts we agreed with the three ferry companies are essentially a commitment to block-book tickets on additional sailings after the UK leaves the European Union. So actually we have taken a responsible decision to make sure that taxpayers’ money is properly protected.

I can confirm that the contracts with DFDS and Brittany Ferries remain on track and will provide us with valuable additional freight capacity into the UK in the event of disruption following EU exit. We also have contractual options to replace the Seaborne capacity with additional capacity on routes in the North sea, and this is an option we will be discussing across the Government in the coming days.

While the focus of this Government is to secure a deal with the European Union, as a responsible Government we will continue to make proportionate contingency plans for a range of scenarios. That is the right thing to do.

What began as a debacle has now descended into a Whitehall farce. This Minister is rewriting the textbook for ministerial incompetence in office. I repeatedly warned the Secretary of State that this was the wrong decision at the time, as did industry, yet he chose to ignore those warnings. He told the House last month that this procurement was done properly. It has since emerged that the Department for Transport took shortcuts on the Seaborne Freight procurement. The deal was signed off by a sub-group of a sub-group and the main form of oversight, the procurement assurance board, never looked at it.

The Secretary of State points the finger at Arklow for the contract cancellation. Is it really a good time to further insult the Irish, and is the Arklow angle not a distraction from his decision? He has produced a letter from the company more than a month after the contract was signed; it does not prove anything regarding due diligence. He told this House that the Seaborne contract award was

“responsible stewardship of public money.”—[Official Report, 8 January 2019; Vol. 652, c. 191.]

Sadly, the exact opposite is true, yet again.

The Secretary of State’s decision to award the contract to Seaborne led Ramsgate port owner Thanet Council’s budget deficit to grow by nearly £2 million in the last year. His personal intervention to halt the budget vote last Thursday has compounded those losses. Two days later, he pulls the plug on Seaborne, leaving the council high and dry with mounting losses. What is more, taxpayers face a legal bill of nearly £1 million to fight Eurotunnel following his decision. So can he say how much cancelling the contract will cost the taxpayer and specifically the costs incurred in his own Department? He simply cannot keep blaming others for his own mistakes. This disastrous decision sits squarely with him and his office. Is this Transport Secretary’s approach to transport and wider Brexit contingency planning not off the Richter scale of incompetence? And for the good of the nation and the sake of some semblance of faith being restored to this shambolic Government, should he not now, at long last, do the decent thing and go?

I have to say that the hon. Gentleman brings new meaning to the term “utter hogwash”. First, he clearly was not listening when I said that we have spent no money on this contract. My Department is doing a lot of work on no-deal Brexit preparations, as are other parts of Whitehall—that is the prudent thing to do—but we have not spent any money on this contract. The contract was in fact assured jointly by my officials and officials in the Treasury.

The hon. Gentleman says the letter is worth nothing, but let me just quote from the letter, from the managing director of Arklow Shipping, one of Europe’s biggest shipping companies with operations in Rotterdam and Ireland, which covers chartering, technical and crewing, and finance. He said:

“Arklow Shipping has been working with Seaborne for twelve months in connection with Seaborne’s proposals to develop new freight services between the UK and continental Europe. Arklow Shipping is therefore familiar with Seaborne’s agreement with Her Majesty’s Government to provide additional freight capacity in the event of the UK’s departure from the European Union on a no deal basis.

3. In support of the current proposals to develop the shipping route between Ramsgate and Ostend, Arklow Shipping intends to provide equity finance for the purchase of both vessels and an equity stake within Seaborne which will be the operating entity of this project.

4. Seaborne is a firm that brings together experienced and capable shipping professionals. I consider that Seaborne’s plans to deliver a new service to facilitate trade following from the UK’s departure from the EU are both viable and deliverable. I will be working closely with the team at Seaborne to ensure that they have appropriate support from Arklow Shipping to deliver on their commitments to Her Majesty’s Government.”

Enough said.

Does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment that Arklow Shipping, a major Irish shipping company and the main backer of Seaborne, has pulled away from this contract? Can he give assurances to Thanet District Council and local taxpayers that the cost of keeping Ramsgate in a state of readiness as part of the Brexit contingency planning, which we are all happy to do, will not fall on local taxpayers?

I share my hon. Friend’s disappointment. We are spending a lot of money on contingency planning and resilience in Kent, and I personally regard the port of Ramsgate as an important part of that. He knows that I am committed to continuing to work with Thanet District Council, and I would like to see ferries come back to Ramsgate. Whatever happens, we must make sure that we keep open opportunities for the future, in my view.

Last month, the Secretary of State said that he had full confidence in Seaborne, and just last week he lobbied Thanet Council on its budget plans for Ramsgate. Does this not tell us everything we need to know about his judgment? His argument that Seaborne accounted for only 10% of the proposed additional services and that it did not matter if it did not deliver was nonsensical. Flouting EU procurement rules on unforeseen events by arguing that this was an emergency situation was also fundamentally flawed, given that he awarded a contract to a company with no ships. He says that he has been in negotiations with Seaborne for 12 months. How is that an emergency situation? He has now created his own emergency procurement process.

How many representations has the Secretary of State’s Department received on the procurement process, and are those representations still live, given the two contracts worth £89 million that he has awarded? Are we ever going to see the legal advice and the due diligence that was supposed to have been undertaken? Also, he has not answered the question on why this contract was not referred to a procurement assurance board. What will this missing 10% of capacity mean for Dover? What impact will it have on the port there? To keep HGV freight moving, what is his Department doing about the backlog of 9,000 ECMT permits? Given that he has now reached a stunning new level of incompetence, which must have been really hard to achieve, when will he go?

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman was listening to a word I said. He asked a question about no ships. I can confirm that, as of last week, two ships had been identified and that options were in place to operate the route. This makes it even more disappointing that Arklow was not able to continue its support. He asked a question about negotiating for 12 months. That was Arklow, not my Department. He asked a question about the legal position. The legal position was signed off by officials in my Department and by the Treasury and by my accounting officer. The hon. Gentleman also asked about extra routes. As I mentioned in my remarks, we already have options for additional capacity in the North sea. Those routes are clearly longer and more expensive, but they are available to us. He asked about the ECMT permits. The current position is that the European Union has been very clear that we will continue with the current arrangements. I know of no reason why that should not happen, but we have bilateral arrangements that we can fall back on if it does not.

Setting aside the utterly synthetic outrage dribbling from Opposition Front Benchers, and further to the answer given to my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay), I should like to tell the Secretary of State that Councillor Bob Bayford, the leader of Thanet Council, has made it plain that Thanet wishes to act in the national interest and will continue to seek to do so, but it cannot act alone. There is a contract that Thanet has not yet signed, and will not now sign, with Seaborne Freight. That contract is ready for signature. Is there any reason, given the precedent set with Manston airport, why the Department should not sign that contract and take over the port itself for the duration?

As my hon. Friend knows, I have had discussions with the leader of Thanet District Council over the past few days, and I have been clear that there is a strong case to include Ramsgate port in the resilience work being done in Kent to prepare for a potential no-deal Brexit. We must also be mindful of the council’s financial position and ensure that it is not exposed to financial risk as a result of the broader resilience work happening across Kent.

Questions remain about the legality of all three contracts for additional ferry capacity. The Government used an accelerated procurement process to award the contract to Seaborne Freight, which can be done only in urgent and unforeseeable circumstances. The Department said that the circumstances were the

“unexpected and unforeseeable limitations on the extent to which the market had… been able to”

put “in place contingency plans” for a no-deal Brexit. Given that the Government have consistently provided reassurances that that there will not be a no-deal Brexit, how was it “unexpected and unforeseeable” that the market was unable or unwilling to put in place contingency plans for this scenario?

The particular prompt for this procurement exercise was a change in the assumptions last autumn about the level of potential disruption around the channel ports. That prompted us to look again at what the capacity requirements might be to maintain supply of essential services into the United Kingdom, particularly for the NHS. It would be prudent for any Government in such a position to plan for all eventualities. I want the UK to leave the European Union with an agreement, and we are working hard to achieve that, but we would not be doing our job properly if we were not preparing for all eventualities.

I offer strong support to the Secretary of State because, unlike the Labour party, he is actually undertaking contingency plans for all eventualities. On that point, will he update the House on the other two ferry contracts, their status and when they will come into operation?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. I have heard nothing from Labour bar attempts to disrupt the Brexit process. There has been no support for contingency planning or for a deal. All Labour Members seem to want to do is to act against the national interest, which is typical of the Labour party today. Its Members are more interested in themselves than in the country.

As for the other two contracts, they are proceeding according to plan. The routes will be ready, but I hope that they will not be needed, because I hope that we will leave the European Union with a deal. However, we must be ready, and we will be ready.

The Secretary of State spent a great deal of time maligning the RMT union, which had simply been asking that Ministers ensure that the Brexit ferry contract ships are crewed by British seafarers on decent pay and terms and conditions negotiated through the recognised trade unions. Can the Secretary of State answer a straight question? In answer to the previous urgent question, he talked about the advantages of developing a facility at Ramsgate, so will he confirm whether Ramsgate will be now be used at all in the event of a no-deal Brexit?

I believe in competition, so I would like Ramsgate to operate a ferry service whether there is a no-deal Brexit or not, and I know that the leader of Thanet District Council would like to see the same. It is a good port that has played an important role in the past. However, we will continue to work with the council not only to secure the short-term needs of the port of Ramsgate, but to help it promote the port as a viable option for the future.

We have heard a lot of nonsense about the company not owning any ships, but is it not the case that the majority of rail operators in this country do not own any trains and that many airlines wet lease aircraft, meaning that not only do they not own the planes, but they do not directly employ the crew?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. I have said that the Labour party does not like business any more, but it does not understand business any more. Many Labour Members will go on holiday this summer using airlines that own no planes, because that is how business works, but they lost any understanding of how business works long ago, and I see no sign of that changing.

Last month, the Secretary of State came to the House waxing lyrical about his support for start-up businesses, meaning Seaborne Freight. Is he not even remotely embarrassed that the project has fallen to pieces despite Government support? Will he not at least say sorry to the House for the mess that he has made?

This is a start-up business that did not succeed because its principal backer changed its mind. That is to be regretted and it is a great shame but, as a Minister, I will never make an apology for the Government trying to work with new small businesses. Again, the Labour party does not like small business and does not want us to work with small business. When we do, it shouts and screams. Well, I think the Government should do more for small business, and I am going to carry on doing so.

My right hon. Friend cannot possibly be criticised for entering into a contract, which cost the taxpayer no money, with a new business backed by one of the biggest shipping owners in Europe. Is it not eccentric of Arklow to behave in the way it has and to abandon a contract it supported a fortnight ago? Is there any question of the Irish Government’s involvement either to help or to hinder one of their biggest businesses?

It is not for me to ascribe any motivations to Arklow for the decision it has taken. I regret it having taken that decision, and I think it is a shame, particularly as it gave clear commitments to Seaborne at Christmas time and to my officials and me in January before changing its mind suddenly. I do not know what prompted that decision. I just think it is a very great shame.

What will it take for this Secretary of State to get the sack? Let me see if the following would cause the Prime Minister to issue him his P45: breaking EU procurement rules. Does the Secretary of State really believe he can claim no deal is an emergency that came to light only in October? If it did, it is his fault for underestimating the disruption caused at the ports. Is he confident that this argument is going to stand up in court?

I have been absolutely clear that this procurement was dealt with very carefully by officials in my Department and in the Treasury who fully understood the legal implications of it, and it was approved by my accounting officer. I will not comment on any other legal matters.

The whole House knows that the Secretary of State has been one of the most assiduous Cabinet members in working on contingency plans to make sure that we execute the national interest in leaving the European Union. Has he looked at the possibility of not simply Dover to Calais and Dunkirk but Dover to Zeebrugge? That is a short sea route going to Belgium, not France.

Absolutely. I am also aware that the port of Zeebrugge has made a lot of preparations for the post-Brexit world. One of the things that can help to ease pressure on Dover would be an additional route from Dover to Zeebrugge. I am very keen to see the port of Dover carry on through the Brexit process without significant disruption, and I will do everything I can to help it achieve that goal, but it is sensible to have some easing of pressure on both Dover and the tunnel to give guarantees on services such as the NHS. I will be doing everything I can to make sure things remain as normal as possible for Dover.

Given that this is just one example of hapless contingency planning that we are aware of, and that there may be all sorts of other haphazard things going on, should not the Secretary of State commit to more transparency about contingency planning more broadly? He knows that the Operation Yellowhammer papers on trade and transport went before the Cabinet last week, and there was a discussion at full Cabinet about whether those papers should be published. Which side of the argument was he on? Was he for publication?

Let us be clear, first of all, that Cabinet minutes are not published. I have been pretty transparent over the months in explaining what we are doing on the aviation front and the haulage front. We have been having regular contact with industry, and we are working very closely with the aviation sector and the haulage sector. I do not think we can be accused of hiding what we are doing. The reality is that I am standing here today precisely because we did not hide what we are doing, as we published the detail of these contracts.

May I send a message to the Secretary of State? The south-west and Plymouth are open for business, and I am sure that my constituents who work in that city would really welcome any further opportunities that a contract would present.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend; it has been good to see Members from around Plymouth welcoming the extra traffic that would flow through Plymouth as a result of these contracts. I should also take the opportunity to provide a message of reassurance to Hampshire, where we have done extensive work around the port of Portsmouth in respect of just a couple of extra sailings a day. Let me put it clearly on the record that there is no expectation of major road disruption affecting the surrounding areas of either Plymouth or Portsmouth.

The UK Government have been aware of the possibility of a no-deal Brexit since article 50 was triggered in March 2017, so can the Secretary of State tell us why this contract, which was awarded only at the end of December 2018, proceeded under regulation 32 of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015 without competitive tendering? Will he state clearly for the record, as I have asked this question of him and other Ministers five times now: what were the reasons of extreme urgency and the unforesee- able events that justified his Department proceeding without competitive tendering under regulation 32?